Essay on the Doctrine of Transmigration (Samsara)

The most important religious heritage of India from her ancient past is no doubt the doctrine of transmigration (samsara) which is characteristic of all Indian religions and sharply distinguishes them from those with a Semitic ancestry, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

A few ambiguous and in­conclusive references in Vedic literature suggest that vague ideas of metem­psychosis were known even among the early Aryans, but thoughts of the after­life seem then to have been mainly centred on a heaven whither the souls of the righteous went on death, to feast for ever with their ancestors.

Among the first fruits of the pessimism of the later Vedic period was the gnawing doubt whether even the soul of the dead might not be liable to further death. Thus the idea emerged that Death would hound the soul from world to world (Joke- loka enam mrityur vindet, Sat. Brh. xiii. 3. 5). The quest for permanence, finality, and complete psychological security is very evident throughout the later Vedic literature, where the Vedic heaven begins to seem inadequate and limited, in the light of the contemporary dissatisfaction.


A definite doctrine of transmigration appears for the first time in the Brihaddranyaka Upanishad (vi. 2, repeated with some amplification in Chhandogya Up. v. 3-10). The teaching here enunciated, which has certain primitive features such as do not occur in the developed doctrine of samsara, is ascribed to the kshatriya, Jaivali Pravahana, a chief of the tribe of Panchalas, who taught it to the brahman Aruni Gautama, also known as Uddalaka Aruni, apparently one of the most vigorous thinkers of the period (perhaps c. 700 b.c.). Another passage in the Brihaddranyaka (iii. 2) tells how the great sage Yajnavalkya secretly taught to a questioner as a new and secret theory the doctrine of karma, that the good and evil deeds of a man automatically in­fluence his state in future lives.

The first of these passages suggests that the doctrine originally appeared in non-brahmanic circles. The second indicates that it circulated secretly for some time before it became public knowledge.

From the later Katha Upanishad (i. 20-9) it appears that there was widespread doubt at one time about whether the personality survived at all after death, and the doctrine of trans­migration is again here put forward as a new one, revealed by the god of death to the boy Nachiketas only after much importuning.

In the latest of the prin­cipal Upanishads, however, it seems to have become widely accepted, while in the Buddhist tradition transmigration is axiomatic. There is no discussion on whether or not the personality transmigrates, but only on the mechanics by which it does so.


The evidence for the origin of this doctrine is very faint. It may have been borrowed from non-brahman and originally non-Aryan elements in the Ganga valley, and have gained currency only against considerable opposition from conservative elements among the priesthood.

The names of historical sages-Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka Aruni Gautama-are connected with it in the traditions. How this new and secret doctrine spread in a comparatively short period of time to become universally accepted is also quite unknown. We can only suggest that it was disseminated by wandering ascetics, outside the fraternities of sacrificial priests.

Once it was universally adopted, the idea of samsdra, the unending, or almost unending, passage from death to rebirth and redeath, conditioned the attitudes of nearly all Indians and encouraged certain tendencies in the social life of India.

The prospect of endless rebirth in a vale of tears, even when punctuated by long periods of residence in the heavens, was extremely dis­tasteful to many of the more sensitive people of the times, as it still is, and the quest for psychological security in one changeless entity where there would no longer be fear of death and rebirth was redoubled.

The proliferating religious thought of the Upanishads, Buddhism, Jainism, and other less-known hetero­dox movements owes much of its existence to the growth of this doctrine, which appears to have become universal by the time of the Buddha.

Transmigration must also have encouraged the doctrine of ahimsd (non­injury), which was specially supported by Buddhism and Jainism in their cam­paign against animal sacrifice, for this doctrine linked all living things to­gether in a single complex system-gods, demigods, human beings, demons, ghosts, souls in torment, warm-blooded animals, even humble insects and worms, all possessed souls essentially the same.

The man who tried to infringe the rights of Brahmans to whom land had been granted by the king was threatened in the title-deed with rebirth for eighty thousand years as a worm in dung. On such premisses it is understandable that the wanton killing of animals should be looked on as little better than murder, and meat-eating as little better than cannibalism, for the ant which a man carelessly treads on as he walks down the road may contain the soul of his grandfather.

The great majority of Indians still believe in this doctrine, and the con­comitant doctrine of karma, that man is reborn in happy or unhappy condi­tions according to his works, and these doctrines, in their Buddhist form, have affected more than half of Asia. They provide a potent sanction against evil-doing, or at least against a man’s infringing the ethical norms of his society, for this leads to inevitable suffering, while righteous conduct brings happiness to the next life.

Moreover the afflicted can learn to accept suffering with the thought that it is not sent at the whim of fate or chance, and is not the visitation of a capri­cious god, but is the just recompense for one’s own evil deeds in past lives.

This doctrine is not fatalism, and does not imply that the sufferer should not try to better his lot-rigid determinism, of the type propagated by the hetero­dox sect of the Ajlvikas, is strongly attacked in many classical Indian texts- but it makes suffering of all kinds intelligible, and gives hope to the sufferer who bears affliction patiently. Thus, as a source of consolation, it has done much to mould the Indian character and to shape the Indian way of life.

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A further potent factor in the moulding of the Indian mind, a relic from the same axial period that produced the doctrine of transmigration, is the concept of endless cyclic time in a cosmos so immense that the mind boggles at con­ceiving its size.

The simple and comparatively small universe of Ptolemy, which provided the traditional world-view of later Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is intelligible and homely by comparison; and the traditional Semitic and Christian doctrine of linear time-commencing at a period some 4,000 years B.C. and likely to come to an end and give way to eternity in the comparatively near future-was equally intelligible, giving an urgency to man’s life which might not be felt in a society which believed that time was infinite, with an infinite number of opportunities for the individual to rise or fall in the scale of being.

The Hindu universe is closer to that of modern science than the Ptolemaic one, and for this reason among others Hindus, even orthodox ones of the old school, has little difficulty in accepting scienti­fic theories on the nature of the cosmos or of man.

The forbidding universe of science differs from that of the Hindus in one particular, however. The Hindu world, in all its immense length and breadth, is completely and fully underlain by the Divine. There is no corner of the cos­mos where God, or the impersonal Brahman for the monistic Vedantin, is not.

Facets of the personality of the one Lord behind the many appear in all as­pects of life on earth, and the immense empty spaces of the universe are full of deities, all aspects or partial manifestations of the One.

If the intellectual Hindu prefers to think of the One spirit as impersonal and to equate that One with the At man, the innermost kernel of his own being, the ordinary Indian of all times has thought of the One as personal-a High God who created for himself all the lesser gods and the whole cosmos. Complicated theologies evolved in the period following the composition of the Vedic literature, and continued to develop throughout the pre-Muslim period and even after.

New gods appeared and old gods faded away and almost vanished, in response to the needs of the times. They formed two broad groups, crystal­lizing round the two High Gods, Vishnu and Siva respectively; and the fantasy and inventiveness of the whole folk, not merely of the learned brahmans, ex­pressed itself in the richest collection of mythology and legend in the world- ranging in quality from the sublime to the grotesque and occasionally even to the repulsive.

The universe for the simple Hindu, therefore, despite its vastness, is not cold and impersonal, and, though it is subject to rigid laws, these laws find room for the soul of man. The world is the expression of ultimate divinity; it is eternally informed by God, who can be met face to face in all things, but especially in the image in the temple or family shrine, for divine images under­go consecration ceremonies at which they are converted into channels of god­head, means whereby the god they represent can reveal himself to his wor­shippers. God, infinite and omnipresent, nevertheless, in his condescension, projects himself in the form of an image so that his simpler worshippers may feel nearer to him.

For the Vaishnavites, the worshippers of Vishnu, the god has in the past taken material form, in order to save the world from impending disaster. His incarnations (avataras), especially those as Rama and Krishna, have given the Hindus their most exuberant and vital mythology, legend, and folklore.

Rama and his faithful wife Sita combine the ideals of heroism, long-suffering, righteousness, loyalty, and justice in a story so full of exciting incident that it has become part of the tradition not only of India, but also of most of South- East Asia. And Rama’s henchman, the gigantic monkey Hanuman, type of the loyal helper, striding out with his mighty club, is still among the most popular of the lesser gods of Hinduism. He figures as the divinity of countless minor shrines throughout the length and breadth of India, and is the personification of the strong arm of the Lord, ever ready to help the righteous in the hour of need.

Krishna, probably even more popular than Rama, is a divinity of a rare completeness and catholicity, meeting almost every human need. As the divine child he satisfies the warm maternal drives of Indian womanhood. As the divine lover, he provides romantic wish-fulfilment in a society still tightly controlled by ancient norms of behaviour which give little scope for freedom of expression in sexual relations. As charioteer of the hero Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he is the helper of all those who turn to him, even saving the sinner from evil rebirths, if he has sufficient faith in the Lord.

Siva, the divine dancer and the divine ascetic, has a less vivid body of mythology and legend associated with him. He dwells in the heights of Mt. Kailasa with his beautiful wife ParvatI, his bull Nandi, and his two sons, the elephant-headed Ganesa and the six-headed Karttikeya. Despite its superficial forbiddingness, and its bizarre elements, this group of divinities forms a sort of paradigm of family life.

Often worshipped in the lingam, a much-formalized phallic symbol, Siva represents the eternal power through which the universe evolves. As the divine dancer, subject of some of the most wonderful bronze sculpture in the world, Siva dances new steps in never-ending variety until at length, in a very fierce and wild dance (tandava), he will dance the universe out of existence, later to create a new one by yet another dance.

Stories and legends like these are perhaps almost as important as the austere monism of the intellectual Advaita of Professor Radhakrishnan. It is they that have provided the raw material for most of India’s early art and literature, and they have given courage and consolation in face of adversity to countless millions through the centuries. Moreover they have provided India with her main source of entertainment.

Hinduism has its dark side. Psychopathic self-torture has long been part of it. Evil customs such as widow-burning, animal (and sometimes even human) sacrifice, female infanticide, ritual suicide, religious prostitution, and many others like them have in the past sometimes been practised in the name of the eternal Aryan dharma. But let it not be thought that Hinduism is morbid, gloomy, or forbidding. It is fundamentally a cheerful religion. In its temple courts children play unforbidden; at its temple gates the beggar finds his most profitable place of business.

And, all the larger temples are places of pilgrimage on holy days, centres of jolly religious fairs, to which peasants come from many miles around, not generally with feelings of guilt, fear, and sin, though awe is certainly present, but with the intention of combining religious business with pleasure, just as did the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Here they are refreshed after hard weeks of labour in the fields, the burden of material care left behind in their villages. The dust and weariness of the road are washed away in the ritual bath in the sacred river or tank beside the temple. For a while they visit the shrine and pay their respects to the god who, like a mighty potentate, sits within it. As a symbol of his grace towards them they receive from an officiant the prasada, in the form of holy water, sandal­wood ash, or red pigment, which they rub on their foreheads. Then, freed from earthly care, they enjoy their holiday among their fellows, secure in the knowledge of God’s love, as they understand it.

We do not intend to disparage the Hinduism of the intellectual and the mystic, the Hinduism of the kind expounded by Professor Radhakrishnan. But let us remember the other Hinduism, the Hinduism of the artist and poet, with its rich mythology and legend, the Hinduism of the simple man, with its faith, its ritual, its temples, and its sacred images. Both are part of India’s heritage, and it is impossible to pronounce objectively on their relative merits or importance; but there is little doubt which has the more strongly affected the majority of the inhabitants of the subcontinent for more than 2,000 years.

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